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How to talk to your partner about painful sex

According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), 3 out of 4 women will experience pain with intercourse at some stage in their life. ACOG states that "pain during sex may be a sign of a gynecologic problem, such as ovarian cysts or endometriosis. Pain during sex also may be caused by problems with sexual response, such as a lack of desire (the feeling of wanting to have sex) or a lack of arousal (the physical and emotional changes that occur in the body as a result of sexual stimulation)." It can also be due to Vaginismus.

Despite how common it is, many women feel uncomfortable or have anxiety about communicating that sex is painful to their partner. Some may even abstain from sex or “push through” the pain, denying their own pleasure. But having an honest and judgement-free conversation with your partner can lead to a mutually pleasurable sex life for both of you.

Relationship expert and sexologist, Dr. Jess O’Reilly, PhD urges women not to delay the conversation even if it’s uncomfortable. “Your pleasure and comfort matter, and the sooner you speak up, the happier you’ll be in your relationship.”

Amanda is 23 years old.* She regrets taking a year to talk to her partner. “At the first sign of pain, you should definitely bring it up, because if you have a partner who loves you and wants to give you as much pleasure as you give them, then they're going to want to help you find a solution.”

Dr. Jess encourages women to start the conversation by “focusing on the positive” and telling your partner about something that you do enjoy, followed by an inquiry into what they enjoy and finally a request for more of what you enjoy.      

It’s important not to place the blame on either partner and emphasize that no one’s skills are at fault. “Know that pain isn’t anyone’s fault and it’s certainly not yours. You don’t have to apologize for your body’s natural response and there are many reasons why sex can be painful,” says Dr. Jess.

Eleven years ago when Nicole first experienced painful sex, her partner joked about it, traumatically referring to her as “broken” and their relationship “sexless.”  

“I know now that this was harmful to me and I wish I could go back to my 18-year-old self and demand that we have an adult conversation about my health,” says Nicole, who is now 29 years old.

For people who are a little more shy, Naturopathic MD and Sexologist, Dr. Jordin Wiggins recommends asking your partner to listen to a podcast or read an article about painful sex as a conversation starter.        

“We're all in need of better sex education,” says Dr. Wiggins. “Because if we're constantly trying to fit into the current model where women are scared to speak up, because our pleasure has sort of taken a backseat and men's egos are hurt, it doesn't make sex pleasurable for anyone.”

Once couples have had the initial conversation, it’s time to get really curious and start an ongoing dialogue about what is mutually pleasurable. This will be different for each couple but can include extended foreplay, different positions, using fingers, or experimenting with lube and toys. Having this ongoing dialogue will actually make couples more considerate and attentive lovers.          

“What turned you on at 20 is not going to turn you on at 30 or 40. It should be this ongoing dialogue experiment that you're having with your partner throughout your lifetime.” says Dr. Wiggins.

*With the exception of Dr. Jess O’Reilly and Dr. Jordin Wiggins, only first names have been used throughout for privacy.

Courtney Biggs
Courtney Biggs is a prolific writer focused on disparities in women's healthcare. She is based in Brooklyn, New York.